Lessons in Avoiding Your Neighbor

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My initial reaction was to cross to the other side of the street. I knew I could make it look natural and not be offensive. My two young daughters were strapped into the stroller. I was thumbing through emails on my phone and my high energy dog was pulling on the leash in every which direction.

The next day was trash day and thirty yards in front of me I heard my neighbor dragging his trash can to the curb. When I looked up from my phone and saw him, it was decision time. Either, I keep moving forward and engage with my neighbor, or I bury my head in avoidance and make it look like my dog was pulling me to the other side of the road.

In Luke 10, Jesus tells the story of a hijacked traveler who’s left for dead on the side of the road. Shortly after the robbery, two men of religious standing pass by the scene of the crime. Upon seeing the wounded traveler in the distance, both men make the decision to cross over to other side of the road pretending never to have seen him.

While in my situation, life and death wasn’t hanging in the balance, the same motivational force was at work in my heart. Rather than stepping into an opportunity to love my neighbor, it was much more convenient to avoid him.

Whether it’s evading someone at the grocery store, ignoring a beggar on a street corner or avoiding your neighbor as you walk the dog, why do we pretend not to see these people?

Seeing other people is risky, especially when they spot us seeing them. If we stop and take the time to ask even the simplest of questions we enter into the unknown. The standard exchange we expect is, “Hey John. How are you?” “Oh, hey Luke. I’m good, busy but good. You?” And off we go.

But what happens when the exchange isn’t routine? What happens when John tells Luke that he isn’t good? That he just lost his job and his marriage is falling apart? At that point seeing other people brings the potential for involvement and the possibility of responsibility.

In our individualistic society we believe we’re accountable only for ourselves. But when we genuinely look at each other, when we connect eye to eye and enter into someone else’s world, we are faced with the call to love and suffer with those in our community.

In the story Jesus tells about the wounded traveler, after the two religious men pass by, a third man journeys along the same road. Like the two men before him, he sees the beaten man fighting for his life. But rather than pretending not to see him, this third man embraces seeing him. We read in the story, “When he saw the man, he had compassion. He went over to him and bandaged his wounds.”

What follows are the details of how he leverages his own resources to serve and care for this man who’s a stranger. The two religious men in the story pretend not to see, because they know actually seeing the wounded traveler would cost them more than they were willing to give.

In his book, Love Walked Among Us, Paul Miller writes, “Love begins with looking. We instinctively know that love leads to commitment, so we look away when we see a beggar. We might have to pay if we look too closely and care too deeply.”

As I looked up from my phone and saw my neighbor coming to the end of his driveway, I quickly compiled a list reasons why I should avoid the encounter. “I have to respond to these important emails. I barely know him and our conversation would be awkward at best. Plus, I have my dog and two kids with me. He’ll understand.”

Jesus tells this story in a conversation with a religious expert who’s playing word games with Him in order to justify avoiding his neighbor. The reason we justify our avoidance is in an attempt to maintain control. But Miller also writes, “Loving means losing control – losing control of our schedule, our money, and our time. When we love we cease to be the master and become a servant.”

Truly seeing our neighbor results in submitting our comfort and convenience to Jesus in order to allow His compassion to overwhelm us to the point of getting involved. In the split second it took to rationalize my avoidance I was resisting the Spirit’s call to sincerely see my neighbor and simply say hello.

Loving your neighbor isn’t only about extravagant acts of heroism. Today, most of us won’t comes across a man lying half dead on the side of the road. But, we all will cross paths with broken people who are deeply wounded and hurt.

Perhaps the starting point to loving your neighbor is simply not avoiding them. Next time your out running errands or walking your dog, put away your phone and be attentive to the presence of God and the people around you. Run the awkward risk of looking someone in the eye and sincerely ask how they are doing. Be willing to step into whatever comes your way with an open heart to love and open hands to serve. May Jesus meet you there.